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Sunday Biz: ‘The Rise And Stall Of Snowboarding’

Editor’s Note: When Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates, a market research and consulting firm that tracks the ski and snowboard industry, released the findings of his “The Rise and Stall of Snowboarding” report at this year’s NSAA conference, and subsequently in the NSAA Journal, it created a media blitz of concern around the decline of snowboarding. While the report does show concerning trends, there is a great deal of data and evidence that snowboarding is still growing and not stalling to the extent indicated. However, this article was undertaken and released as a call to action to get the industry focused on its future and provide  suggestions to increase participation.  Here is Fristoe’s article in its entirety. We’d like to hear your take in the comments.

By Nate Fristoe, Director, RRC Associates

Adaptation to change often defines success in both business and life.  When snowboarding emerged in the late eighties, the level of success in adapting to this change in technology was mixed at best.  As the equipment became more prominent at US ski resorts, many operators went through a process that looked a little like the stereotypical stages of grief.  At first there was denial; "This is just a fad, it will never catch on."  Then anger; "Not on my mountain they won't."  Then bargaining; "We'll let them on a few slopes and see how it goes."  And finally, acceptance; "Their money is green and they buy lift tickets, so maybe we can make this work after all."  Collectively one could argue we've been in the snowboarding "acceptance stage" since the mid-1990s, but acceptance unchecked leads to complacence.  Today, there is every indication that the growth in snowboarding we took for granted has stalled and visitation from snowboarding is headed towards a path of substantial decline.  The following briefly summarizes the current state of snowboarding and examines what may be done to boost growth in this segment in the future.

The Current Situation

In order to understand what is happening with snowboarding today it is essential to begin with a look at the historic data and see how these numbers have evolved over time.  NSAA has actively tracked the growth of snowboarding since the 1991/92 season when operators were asked to estimate the percent of their visitation accounted for by snowboarders on the Kottke End of Season Survey.  In addition, starting in the winter of 1996/97, snowboarding was added as part of an equipment type question on the NSAA National Demographic Survey.  The former of the two research instruments usually has a greater number of resorts contributing data but relies on operator estimates, which in some cases are quite precise and in other cases are based on guess work.  In contrast, the NSAA National Demographic Survey represents fewer resorts but is based on on-mountain interviews conducted systematically throughout the season.

Regardless of which data source is considered, both metrics describe a similar pattern of growth and stall.  The proportion of visits accounted for by snowboarding showed robust growth during the nineties.  In fact, based on this pattern of growth many working in the industry in the 1990s might have reasonably anticipated that by 2011/12, anywhere from 35 to 45 percent of domestic visits would be accounted for by snowboarders.  If that future had played out snowboarding participants could have boosted the total number of active snow sports participants in the U.S. to well north of the average estimate of a little over 10 million and pushed total U.S. visits consistently above the 60 million mark.

Figure 1
U.S. Snowboarders as a Percentage of Total Visits to U.S. Resorts:  1991/92 to 2011/12

Figure 2
Estimated Number of Active U.S. Snowboarders
Snowboarders as a Percent of U.S. Active Participant Base:
1996/97 to 2011/12

But that future never happened. Instead, snowboarding's strong growth trajectory essentially leveled off following the 2001/02 season, hitting a ceiling of about 32 percent in terms of total domestic visits.  In addition, U.S. snowboarding participants accounted for only about 25 percent of snow sports participants in 2011/12, a number almost unchanged from the prior season and essentially flat since 2005/06.  Overall, the numbers tell a story contrary to the message embraced by the media and many in the industry (think Shaun White, X Games, Gretchen Bleiler, and the Dew Tour).  Instead, the numbers suggest that the industry is approaching a tipping point for snowboarding that will represent a significant challenge for snow sports; in addition, they also suggest that a path forward will require more than just passive acceptance.

 

To be frank, some resort operators may be a little ambivalent about snowboarding's failure to deliver on the growth envisioned in the 1990s.  Some operators witness these trends with a quiet schadenfreude, thinking it merely confirms what they had suspected all along.  Others look at the numbers and don't see how their resort is directly affected; they argue their operation is insulated from this trend.  Still others see the numbers and understand the magnitude of the opportunity cost the industry has suffered.  Figure 3 presents the best estimate of how much business has been lost each season as a result of snowboarding's stall, and also shows how those losses have grown over time.  Last season alone the likely opportunity cost was at least 3.1 million domestic snowboarding visits, a number the industry can hardly afford to ignore.

Figure 3
Annual Estimated Opportunity Cost in Domestic Visits since 2005/06

Follow the jump…

Factors Contributing to the Stall

To understand the dynamics of this opportunity cost, some of the factors contributing to the lack of growth in snowboarding are analyzed, starting with relatively macroscopic dynamics and drilling down to somewhat unexpected trends.  First, the regional variation in levels of participation in snowboarding is provided from results of the NSAA National Demographic Survey, presented by the Kottke region in which the skier/snowboarder resides.  So in other words, rather than looking at the profile of skiers and riders spending time at resorts within a particular Kottke region, we are instead looking at the Kottke region's resident generated visitation and participation.  This means that for Kottke regions like the Southeast and Midwest much of the resident generated visitation and participation occurs out of region.

 Figure 4

Percent of Total Snowsports Participants by Kottke Region of Residence:
1996/97 to 2011/12

Surprising to some may be the relative dominance of the Midwest and Southeast.  Overall, residents these regions accounted for about 52 percent of last season's estimated 8.3 million active snow sports participants, almost unchanged from 2010/11.  In what was an exceptionally challenging season, participation was down significantly in all regions (see Figure 5).  On a longer time span, and independent of the downward shifts introduced by the poor conditions of 2011/12, snow sports participation has been fairly stable across all regions.  While not ideal, this stability is preferable to the significant declines projected in the early 2000's and indicates the industry has achieved significant success in stabilizing participation levels.

Figure 5
Estimated Number of Snowsports Participants by Kottke Region of Residence:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Turning exclusively to snowboarding, Figure 6 illustrates the percent of a region's resident generated visitation accounted for by snowboarding.  As stated before, the 2011/12 season introduced a fair amount of volatility into the data which was not evident in the historic trends, with relatively large declines in snowboarding as a percent of total resident generated visits in the Rockies and strong increases in snowboarding as a percent of total resident generated visits in the Midwest.  Factoring out the oddity of this past season, most regions have not seen substantial increases in snowboarding's representation since the 2005/06 season.

Furthermore, looking at the estimated number of snowboarding participants by season, steep declines are evident in the number of snowboarding participants in the Pacific West, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northeast (see Figure 7).  The Midwest was essentially flat and the Southeast was the only region showing significant long-term growth in the number of snowboarding participants.  With the notable exception of the Southeast, the real takeaway in the regional snowboarding numbers is the lack of significant growth in most regions since the 2005/06 season.

Figure 6
Percent of Kottke Region's Resident Visits accounted for by Snowboarding:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Figure 7
Estimated Number of Snowboarding Participants by Kottke Region of Residence:  1996/97 to 2011/12

In addition to a lack of growth in snowboarding participation in most regions of the country, there has also been a sharp drop in the average number of days snowboarders hit the slopes.  During both the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons snowboarders hit the slopes an average of 1.5 fewer days than they did in 1996/97 (see Figure 8).  This decline in the average number of days snowboarders visit the slopes, combined with stagnation in the growth of active domestic snowboarding participants, is one of the driving factors contributing to a lack of growth in snowboarding visits.  In contrast the overall average days skied has remained relatively stable at around 5.5 to 5.7 days per season.

Figure 8
Average Days Snowboarded or Skied:  1996/97 to 2011/12

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Gender differences in participation levels are also driving snowboarding's stall.  For snow sports as a whole the percent of domestic visits accounted for by males versus females has historically hovered at around 60 percent versus 40 percent for the past fifteen seasons.  In terms of participants, the ratio is slightly more balanced at 54 percent male to 46 percent female, but snow sports overall still remains male biased.  Historically gender related participation differences have contributed to snow sports' male skew, with women tending to ski/snowboard about one less day on average than their male counterparts, but the real factor driving the gender imbalance in snow sports is the gender ratio in snowboarding.  This starts to become apparent when one looks at the percent of visits accounted for by men versus women for snowboarding only, where over the past 15 seasons anywhere from 66 to 70 percent of domestic snowboarding visits have been accounted for by men.

Figure 9
Gender Ratios for Snowboarding Visits:  1996/97 to 2011/12

In terms of snowboarding participants, there are over 600,000 more male snowboarders than female snowboarders.  This translates into a 65:35 male to female ratio for snowboarding.  In contrast, the overall male to female participant ratio for skiing is a much more balanced 51 to 49 percent.  Putting all these numbers together, one realizes almost all the gender imbalance in snow sports is driven by snowboarding.

Figure 10
Gender Ratios for Snowboarding Participants:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Interestingly the male bias of snowboarding isn't accounted for by a disproportionate number of males picking up the sport; rather, it appears to be a dearth of females that progress from beginners to higher ability participants.  In fact, among first time and beginner snowboarders, the gender ratio has traditionally been quite balanced.  It is only among the higher ability levels that the gender gap opens up for snowboarding, with 67 percent of intermediates and 81 percent of advanced/experts being male (see Figure 11).  Some have suggested that female snowboarding beginners aren't truly dropping out of snow sports entirely but rechanneling into skiing.  While some anecdotes might support this transition, there is little empirical evidence behind it; only a little over 2 percent of skiers interviewed on-mountain last season indicating they had started in snow sports via snowboarding.

Figure 11
Percent of Snowboarding Participants that are Male by Ability Level:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Figure 12
Number of U.S. Resident Snowboarding Participants by Ability Level:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Beyond the ability related gender gap in snowboarding, there are also issues with regards to growth across ability levels.  Figure 12 shows the number of snowboarding participants by ability.  After years of steady growth across ability levels a decline is now seen across all levels of proficiency, with a particularly steep three season decline in the intermediate and lower ability groups.  Part of what is driving the decline in first time and beginner participants is fewer kids starting in snow sports via snowboarding.  Based on the NSAA National Demographic Survey, the percent of children 14 and under snowboarding has declined from a high of about 42 percent during the 2003/04 season to a new low of about 34 percent this past season (see Figure 13).  The assumption, right or wrong, had largely been that this percentage would keep climbing to at least a 50/50 split among youth first timers and beginners.  The fact that it has declined to only a little over one third should be alarming for the industry.

Figure 13
Percent of 14 Year and Younger Children on Snowboard:  1997/98 to 2011/12

Another factor contributing to snowboarding's stall is the maturation of the participant base.  From 1996/97 to 2011/12 the average age of snowboarders has gone from about 24 years old to 27 years old (see Figure 14).  This may not seem like much until one realizes many of the new snowboarders generated in the 90s are now entering important family and career building years.  (A 15-year-old who started snowboarding in 1996/97 is now 30 years old.)  Additionally, almost 38 percent of snowboarders last season indicated they were part of a couple or had children, compared to only 23 percent ten years ago (see Figure 15).  Consider this in combination with snowboarding's gender imbalance and the odds are good a male snowboarder's new spouse may not share his passion for the sport.  As the family matures, it may be significantly less likely to experience the kind of rebound in participation levels seen from prior generations.

Figure 14
Average Age of Snowboarders:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Figure 15
Percent of Snowboarders either Coupled or with Children:  1996/97 to 2011/12

Follow the jump for Fristoe’s proposed solutions….

Solutions

There are many clues pointing us in the same direction.  Snowboarding's stall is a very real phenomena, and while some might argue that its effects are regional in nature or don't directly impact their individual operations, the entire industry will suffer if the issue is ignored.  The decline in snowboarders' average number of days on the slopes alone has cumulatively cost the industry at least three million domestic visits annually, and while the stall of snowboarding is today described in terms of opportunity costs, we are rapidly approaching a time when gender and age-related snowboarding participation patterns will begin to erode the 40 to 50 year old age segments that have traditionally been one of the biggest revenue sources for the industry.

There is no single solution to this issue, but data from NSAA's extensive research has shown us which strategies have potential and which might fall short.  Two strategies from this later solution category that often get mentioned are recapturing of drop-outs and generating more participation.  From the Model for Growth efforts we have learned that recapturing drop-outs is not a very cost effective solution and would likely take years of highly expensive marketing to show any impacts.  The strategy of boosting snowboarder's days on-mountain per season could produce results but might come at the expense of yield if gained via discounting.  Boosting snowboarder's average number of days is also in opposition to their increasingly family and career building focused life stage.

The best solution for re-energizing snowboarding likely involves a focus on addressing gender imbalances in the sport through a serious reconsideration of teaching techniques.  Combine this approach with companion efforts to provide snowboarding parents with easier paths to come back to the sport themselves, while making it easier to introduce their kids to snowboarding, and real progress becomes evident in not only turning around snowboarding, but growing the entire industry.

Figure 16 shows what could potentially happen if, over multiple seasons, the gender imbalance gradually moderated from the current 35 percent male to a slightly improved 40 percent male.  With this focus, the decline in visitation is not only halted, but within roughly eight seasons snowboarding visits are back on a growth trajectory (see Figure 16).  Figure 17 shows how this effort could potentially impact the entire snow sports industry by moving average visitation levels above 60 million visits after ten seasons.

Figure 16
Actual and Projected Snowboarding Visits by Gender:  1996/97 to 2021/22

Figure 17
Projected Average Total Visitation Under Three Scenarios:  2012/13 to 2021/22

 

Combining efforts to grow snowboarding with existing efforts to improve retention and conversion for snow sports as a whole will have the greatest impact for the industry. With this approach there is the very real possibility that visitation could grow to unprecedented levels within a relatively short timeframe, but to do so will involve recognizing the need to move away from complacence and embrace change.  All businesses and all sports mature, but if ski areas don't steward the maturation of snowboarding more carefully, a significant chunk of business could be lost because of basic complacence.

 We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comment section below…